Reducing innovation failure

Most of us are scared of failing. It’s normal and if you haven’t experienced it yet, trust me you are not doing anything worth your own time. Fear of failing can be immobilizing, and stop you from doing anything at all, from moving forward. I will do my best to be crystal clear. If a company is scared of failing, it’s going nowhere. Allowing fear to stop progress in life, and in business, will lead to missing several opportunities. Be brave, fail!

The business environment we currently live in is extremely fast-paced and innovation is key for business survival and creation. Typically, entrepreneurs are deploying (or trying to) most innovations. However, corporates are increasingly getting some skin in the game.

However, most of the time innovation fails. It’s just part of the game. According to Robert Cooper (father of the stage-gate model), for every seven innovation projects, only one succeeds. In his research, Andrew Kusiak actually refers to a 90% chance of failure. No matter what the true value is, the conclusion is that innovation is hard to master. Looking at the most innovative companies out there, a trend arises. All of them have had many more failures than successes.

Thomas Edison’s quote is a perfect example of the value of failure. Failing as a learning experience can add tremendous value in the long run and even though it is generally accepted, encouraging failure is easier said than done. It is impossible to know in advance what will and will not work. Companies need to expose themselves to new ideas and solutions. The most innovative companies have a culture where they learn from failure, not only celebrate it. However, making the same mistake over and over again has no value.

It is impossible to pinpoint a single root cause for innovation failure. Often, there is a compound effect of several factors. Innovation is uncertain and risky. Identifying the most common factors and developing innovation practices sheds light on how corporations can gradually build innovation capabilities and legacy. Not necessarily to prevent failure, but to create value with failure and learn.

Have an innovation strategy

Industries are changing quickly and even established market leaders are being disrupted by digitalisation. Companies must devise an innovation strategy. An incomplete, poorly defined or misaligned strategy is often the reason why innovation fails to prevail. It is essential that the innovation strategy goes hand in hand with the overall corporate strategy and, hopefully, creates and leverages synergies.

A well defined and aligned innovation strategy allows companies to further develop balanced innovation portfolios. Often, innovation initiatives are scattered. Individuals within the organisation become enthusiastic about the hype around innovation, entrepreneurship and startups and start proposing ad hoc activities. The innovation strategy will help to focus on those activities that have the most impact on the business.

A well thought out innovation strategy helps create momentum for projects and prioritising them, as well as designing a clear and concrete assignment for each. Additionally, only by having innovation well embedded into the corporate strategy can it justify significant resource allocation to its deployment. Only if failing is accepted to be part of the innovation strategy, will disruptive opportunities arise.

Promote a growth and innovation culture

The institutional value of failure is closely tied to the corporate culture. Historically, organisations are terrible at supporting people who have failed. Often, the reaction towards failure is to appoint a different set of individuals to the next innovation assignment. Or worse, killing innovation initiatives altogether.

Learning opportunities can only arise if failures are treated with respect and a neutral and non-judgmental environment is nurtured. Evaluating why initiatives fail and disseminating this information allows for the knowledge to become institutional. In this context, the individuals responsible for failure are respected, since they are now wiser and better prepared to explore future opportunities.

A culture supporting growth and innovation helps prepare the workforce to go outside the box and motivates managers to explore the fast-changing business environment. In a nutshell, a culture focusing on innovation empowers people (from different hierarchical levels) to source for opportunities and work together towards significant innovation.

Ensure adequate leadership throughout the company

Leadership is about inspiring people. Good leaders are capable of leveraging problems as opportunities. Having the leaders committed to innovation promotes learning from failure, rather than punishing individuals who have failed, and can create the urgency for innovation.

Having employees, leaders and top managers participating in the innovation team can add significant value. Effective innovation deployment requires creativity, knowledge and experience. The top management can help the team to be concrete, from the start, to focus on the target market and define criteria for the new concepts.

Simply put, innovation leadership inspires employees to create and implement new products, services and technologies. Innovation generated by leadership is applicable for several purposes and can be translated across sectors. Some great examples are 3M, Google or Zappos.

Get the right people to deploy innovation

Innovation is mostly about execution. If not, it is only a creativity exercise, with little practical relevance. Making a corporation innovative requires a team of people who can influence and tap into various areas of the company. All departments will be impacted and having members of these departments in the innovation team provides an excellent advantage. A team approach can get you better innovation results and internal supporters.

In order to foster collaboration, it is important to identify people across the organisation that share some traits; such as being able to think outside the box and challenge the status quo. It is also key to involve individuals for whom innovation is personally relevant. Diversity (gender, age, professional competences, etc.) also plays an important role in fostering innovation.

Create partnerships between internal and external innovation sources

Co-creating value with both internal and external stakeholders solves customer needs and problems faster. Bringing together different teams and clients can create real results with business impact.

Discussing challenges with people from different teams, backgrounds and industries give a fresh perspective. This can be particularly valuable when the internal innovation team is not able to build the product as desired. Often, breakthroughs are a result of co-creating and merging together ideas and concepts. Sometimes, it is also useful to put development on hold and let different people take the initiative. History has shown that ideas that did not work at a particular time were later deployed with a different set of people.

A great example is the digital camera. Kodak invented it in 1975. The timing was not right. There was no infrastructure to support digital cameras and no personal computers. The photos from these new cameras could not be stored anywhere. It was a huge fail. Fast forward a few years, and in 1990 the first Dycam Model 1 is the first digital camera going on sale to the market. As I said, history is full of great ideas that were simply at the wrong time.

Building a strong network of innovation partners is an effective strategy in co-creating solutions and exploring new opportunities. Sometimes, relying on external service providers, who are often specialised in specific tools or process, can be of value.

Assimilate innovation into the core business

Innovation is sometimes perceived as an independent function of the business. Even though this is often the easiest way to start innovation endeavours, it can also hinder any business impact.

To strengthen the buy-in by top management, incorporating innovation projects into the core business can bring a further commitment to the innovation strategy. This relates closely to the innovation portfolio referred above.

Innovation cannot focus solely on long-term or short-term outcomes. A balanced portfolio brings together short-, mid- and long-term initiatives, tackling problems and opportunities at different levels of proximity to the companies business (i.e. core, adjacent, disruptive).

In essence, venturing on innovation strategy is an endeavour demanding a real strategic commitment, time, appropriate conditions, a dedicated and capable team possible as well as a dynamic and flexible learning environment.

Embrace failure. Failure is an important part of the innovation process, so let it happen. But be smart about it. Learn from failure as much and as quick as possible. I have shared some key areas to help you reduce the failure rate of innovation. But at the end of the day it comes down to how nimble you are as an organization and if you are capable of adapting constantly to the learning failure can bring. Remember, be brave. It will pay off.

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